On DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS

 

A musing on Harry Kumel’s elegant, erotic vampire masterpiece

Ever since Gloria Holden first made ghoulish goo-goo eyes at her girl victims in 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, horror films have been fascinated by the lesbian vampire. Blame J. Sheridan LeFanu, the Irish writer whose risqué short story Carmilla broke the boundaries of homo-erotic bloodsucking and whose taboo allure helped eventually launch this evolving spate of increasingly explicit dark fantasy pictures, many of which reared their horny heads in the considerably more liberal 1970’s. UK horror studio Hammer were the first ones to really make their muff munching mark with Roy Ward Baker’s LeFanu adaptation The Vampire Lovers and other films, like Jose Laraz’s almost hardcore 1974 epic Vampyres and Vincente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride continued to push the envelope, mixing fangwork with female nudity to grand (and grandly exploitative) effect.

But there’s one incredible film that always gets lumped in with those lower brow sex-soaked exploitation pictures. A movie that, while ostensibly playing by the rules of the erotic Sapphic vampire picture, is actually something far more elegant, kinky, exotic, sinister and sophisticated. I speak of course about Belgian director Harry Kumel’s grinning, impossibly Gothic and hypnotically sensual 1971 melodrama/morality tale Daughters of Darkness, a wicked and quintessentially European exercise in intelligent, witty and stylish filmmaking and one of the most cynical cinematic musings on male/female relations the horror genre has ever offered us.

The film opens, appropriately, on a speeding train, as Francois de Roubaix brilliantly throbbing, trippy jazz/post-mod rock score saturates a scene of carnal coupling between newlyweds Stefan (Dark Shadows star John Karlen) and Valerie (French Canadian erotic starlet Danielle Ouimet). After this intense sequence, we learn that these two lovers have met and married after a recent whirlwind courtship and don’t really know each other very well at all. Before Daughters of Darkness’s lurid narrative runs its course, they’ll have rectified that social problem for the worse.

The couple wind up the sole guests in a looming, off season hotel in picturesque Ostend where they make love, eat, talk and where Stefan nervously avoids Valerie’s urgings to call his “mother” and tell her about their nuptials. At this point, though we can’t quite put our finger on it, Kumel manages to create a genuine sense of menace and unease: why is Stefan afraid of making a phone call to his mother? What is he hiding from the sweet and naïve Valerie? Read on…

Suddenly a car pulls up to the hotel and out steps an elegant woman and her traveling companion. She’s the Countess Elizabeth Bathory (the ravishing French film icon Delphine Seyrig), an elegant, smooth, smiling and charming aristocrat who is also checking in to the remote hotel. Upon seeing the young, fresh faced (and lithe bodied) Stefan and Valerie, Bathory immediately befriends them, slowly seducing and manipulating their affections in what appears to be an attempt to pry the beautiful Valerie away from her increasingly brutish man.

As the serpentine narrative weaves along, we learn that Bathory is in fact the legendary Hungarian ‘Blood Countess’, a real historical figure who bled thousands of virgins to death in order to maintain a glowing, youthful appearance. Only now, Bathory’s become a kind of love starved, sexually charged, immortal vagabond vampire, in town looking for a replacement for her increasingly melancholy mate Ilona (the better than perfect German model and soft porn star Andrea Rau). And, as both Stefan and we the audience quickly learn, this is a woman who always gets what she wants.

Daughters of Darkness is a pitch perfect exercise in mood, tone and tension and, if you’re willing to let it work you over, it casts a slick, strange and chilly spell that sticks long after the screen has faded to red. It also has a wicked sense of black humor. In one of the picture’s most disturbing and uncomfortably hilarious sequences, Stefan, for all his brutish, Stanley Kowalski gone Eurotrash macho bravado, is revealed to be a closet (and apparently “kept”) homosexual. When he finally makes his reluctant call to “mother”, the domineering matriarch turns out to be a decadent, older, lipstick wearing queen (brilliantly played by the actor/director Fons Rademakers), one who dryly scolds the younger man for doing something as “unrealistic” as marrying a woman. This bizarrely funny episode is followed shortly thereafter by a darker scene in which Stefan obsessively snakes himself through a crowd in Bruges to see the body of a viciously murdered woman and, when Valerie attempts to pull her apparently necrophiliac husband away, he hits her, knocking her to the ground. What horrors await this unsuspecting girl in her marriage into Stefan’s “family” the audience can only guess…

The driving theme behind Daughters of Darkness initially appears to be a feminist one, with the soft spoken lesbian vampire Bathory “liberating” Valerie from the oppression of her potentially dangerous husband. But really, Valerie is just being manipulated by another, far more lethal and selfish predator. And that’s the real force behind the film, a shadowy, cruel amorality that is as icy and reptilian as it is both appealing and amusing.

Visually, Kumel’s picture is breathtaking, with its gorgeous cast, authentic European locales, fluid camera work and elegant use of the color red (the film’s original title was actually Les Levres Rouges, or The Red Lips). And though it does unofficially belong to that aforementioned cannon of 70’s lesbovamp pictures, it’s not only an infinitely more evolved piece of cinema than say, Jess Franco’s groovy and voyeuristic Vampyros Lesbos, it also keeps the vampire shtick to a minimum. Nary a fang is revealed and blood is consumed only once, in the balletic last reel sequence that smacks of a quasi-crucifixion metaphor. And if we are to read it that way, suddenly, the film is even further removed from any sort of feminist-leaning than we thought…

This is one of my favorite movies of all time and though some may see it as a dash pretentious, I’ll be damned if I can find anything wrong with it on any level. It’s seductive and addictive. It’s pure cinema as a gauzy, sensual dream. Perhaps I’m blinded by this love, but any movie that features a central menace as effortlessly sexual as Delphine Seyrig (it’s been noted that her portrayal of Bathory somewhat channels the chilly purr of Marlene Dietrich) locks itself into my heart for life.

On VAMPIRE CIRCUS

A personal memoir about watching a Hammer horror classic and almost paying for the experience with my life

As I continue into my forties, I am astonished by just how lazy I am. Well, maybe lazy isn’t the right word. In fact, I’m far from that. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, writing, making films, editing magazines, performing live music and many other creative pursuits (not to mention minding my three awesome kids) that I’m blessed to be involved in.

But when I was a youth, I never stopped moving.

See, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 32 and, living in Toronto, I relied exclusively on trains, buses, streetcars and feet.

These days, I rely on minivan and Amazon to get the things I need and the fixes I want.

But back then, in those carefree and questing days…whooo-weee. Nothing could stop me from getting where I needed to get, no matter the distance, no matter the sort of transportation required, no matter the time I had to block off to get there.

In my teens, I lived in a place called Mississauga, a city in the Greater Toronto Area. My fellow freaks that were in search of more esoteric culture in this artless deathtrap, used to call in MiserySauga. And it was indeed miserable. When there was a film or concert I wanted to attend, I would simply have to take the bus, the train and the foot to get there. It took me 2.5 hours using these routes to get downtown and I’d gladly bank this time just so I could sit in an opulent, ancient movie theater and watch oddball, arthouse and obscure flicks on the big screen. Or so I could simply have a coffee in a place where people-watching was exciting; where fashion, beauty, conversation, ideas and eccentricity were plentiful.

It was all worth it and I did it often.

Now, I still enjoy these solo pursuits. But the lengths I’ll go to sate these needs are minimal when stacked up against those longer, less schedule-bound days.

Last night, as I lay down to detox before I bed, I opted to put on the 1972 Hammer Horror classic Vampire Circus, a late period offering from the studio that I have long loved. And I immediately recalled the first time I saw this film and the berserk lengths I went to in order to see it. And I remembered how that quest almost killed me.

For real!

When I was 17, my weekend job was working at the Dixie Flea Market, at the dismal Dixie Value Mall in the East end of MiserySauga. The flea market was a basement grotto, only open on Saturdays and Sundays and it was a place I had been going to for years, primarily to trade VHS tapes with a pockmarked, shyster video-vendor that always ripped my naïve ass off. But to me, the place had a sleazy, smelly (it always smelled of mold, sweat and hot dogs) carnival charm.

So getting a paying job at this greaseball palace was a real thrill.

My gig was working for an old alcoholic vendor of “Peg Perego” mini-bikes for toddlers. You know, those motorized things that move at 1 mile per hour? My responsibility lay in charging parents a buck for their brats to ride around on this little make-shift track while they bought crap from the market and, hopefully, to actually sell them one of these over-priced vehicles.

I never did sell a bike.

But I sold tons of rides.

Endless rides.

And for every 5 bucks earned, I’d put 3 in my pocket.

I’d take that pilfered profit and leave my post (only when it was kid free…I’ve always loved and cared about children and would never do something THAT irresponsible) and run over to the bookseller and buy lurid pulp paperbacks or to that grifter VHS dealer and buy a big-box shocker or a movie poster or…oh, fuck, I skimmed that pithy till hard and criminally fattened up my collection of crap in the process.

Anyway, one weekend I learned that Toronto’s legendary cineaste Reg Hartt was screening a double-dose of Hammer films on the Sunday night at his “Cineforum”.

Two films I had never seen but had read much about.

One was 1968’s The Devil Rides Out.

The other was Vampire Circus.
Reg Hartt is a veteran film collector and exhibitor who has a vast collection of 16mm prints and he would screen them every night in his living room/library, right downtown Toronto on Bathurst, just south of College. I had heard Hart (who is still very much active I believe, though he now screens primarily off digital sources) also used his “screening room” as a way to entice cute young men into his lair for some fun, but I had been there on at least three occasions (once to see a beautiful, bright 16mm print of Horror of Dracula, a screening that changed my life) and each time found Hart to be a great guy and the experience of seeing these movies this way to be unique, warm and exciting.

So, I made plans to go after work, by myself (again, always my preferred method of seeing movies) to take the 2 buses, 2 subways and one streetcar to see these amazing movies, neither of which I would have had any access to otherwise.

There were but two substantial problems here, however.

One, it was the dead-of-blood-freezing-Canadian-winter. Late February, as I recall. An arctic tundra that was colder than my ex-mother-in-law’s kiss.

As a result, the other, was that I was suffering from an accelerating chest cold.

Then of course, there was the fact that I had already traveled 1.5 hours by yet another double bus-ride to get to my job at the Flea Market to begin with. And because of that I would have to tack-on that return trip time onto the near 3 hour additional time it would take for me to get downtown and back.

At night. In the cold.

That’s some serious fucking travel time to see a vampire movie.

But I was 17. I was young. I was in love with films to a degree that was unreasonable. So, after a full day taking dollars from dumb-ass dads while their snotty tots had low-speed chases around a filthy carpeted “track”, I took my stolen-spoils, bought a hamburger, closed up shop and set off on my journey to see some vintage British chillers…

It was 7pm. It was dark outside already. Blacker than a witches tit, in fact. So cold, your lungs felt like leather and, seeing as my lungs were already bothered and bearing mucous-fruit every five minutes, the feeling was deeply unpleasant. A day-long blizzard had turned to rain by this time, which didn’t sit well with the gaping holes in my boots, every step sucking in a swamp and every press of my arch like sloshing around in a sponge.

A cold fucking sponge.

I got on the first bus and, despite the state of things, I was excited to be on my way. You know that that feeling. When you’re finally moving? That feeling of quest was battering down the weight of my increasingly sickly condition.

But just as soon as I was starting to thaw on that bus, it was time to get out, transfer in hand and wait for the second bus on the corner.

There was a coffee shop at that stop and so I ducked in to get a a cup of something hot. I smiled at the cute girl at the counter. I felt alive then, like a sort of warrior on my way to an imagined mecca. And though, this mission was a solo mission, I secretly wished this pretty girl would jump over the counter and come with me. I could educate her in the ways of weird cinema and she could fall madly in love with me…

Once that fantasy passed, I got on the next bus. That bus took me to Kipling station, the first stop in my long subway ride to get me to Bathurst station. At Bathurst, I left the train and waited on the outside platform for the Southbound Bathurst streetcar.

I could feel the grip of the cold. It was a tight grip indeed. And with my toes now frozen and numb, and a cough sputtering in my chest, I started to seriously doubt my journey. Like, just maybe, I should have just gone home.

But I didn’t.

I continued on.

And on.

I made it to Reg Hartt’s house/theater, the neon glow of his “Cineforum” sign in his window, welcoming me gently. Reg himself greeted me just as warmly, took my 10 bucks ( a steep price for me then, but since my wallet was packed with ill-gotten gains, it didn’t really matter) and then I settled into a wildly uncomfortable folding chair to see the magic shadows I had made such an effort to see.

I was late and had missed the first 40 minutes of The Devil Rides Out but I picked up on the story and the tone of the piece quickly and started syncing myself with the three other older gents in attendance, dudes who presumably hadn’t traveled the earth to see these films as I had.

Hartt’s heat must have been broken because the room was unreasonably cold. And I’ve never been one to properly dress for the weather and that night was no exception. I was shivering through my ripped-up leather jacket and my toes? Fuck ‘em, I had zero feeling in them.

But I was watching Christopher Lee battle phantoms and I was fucking thrilled.

It was magic.

After Devil, Reg started to prepare the Vampire Circus print and I asked if he had any coffee. He did. The coffee helped and, pre-screening, we were treated to Reg’s lively mini-lecture/intro about the film we were about to see.

But by the time the first strains of David Whitaker’s delicate score started and we enter the walls of the evil Count Mitterhaus’ bloody lair and the Count’s fangs sprout in blood-lust just before he kills a kid (still one the most perverted and dark openings in any Hammer film…maybe any film period), I started to cough again.

And then I really started to cough. A lot.

It all started to fall apart. My shivers were uncontrollable. I kept spitting phlegm into my empty cup, secretly, as it wasn’t my cup and such an act is beyond uncouth. My head started to feel swimmy. I knew I was getting hot because my skin felt sensitive.

I had gone from getting sick to sick to seriously fucking ill.

But I stayed. I watched Vampire Circus in a daze. Freezing, shaking, burning, quaking, coughing, spitting. I made it to the finish line and deduced through my delirium that the film is perhaps Hammer’s greatest vampire offering, an absolutely mad and frantic piece of fantastique cinema with sex, blood, horror, fantastic bats, pretty sets, solid cast, lovely animals and a killer climax.

When the reel wound out, I literally stumbled out of that house on the verge of collapse.

Reg Hartt asked me if I was alright and I smiled and said yes and thanked him for an awesome evening. I moved back out into the stone-age Hell that was the cold Toronto night and made my journey home. I began sort of blacking out, mostly because I was exhausted but also because my body just wanted to call it a day.

This was before cell phones and no kid my age had a pager unless he was a drug dealer so I had no way of reaching my parents while I was in transit.

But by the time I made it to my bus transfer point in Mississauga, I knew I needed help…

I crawled back into that coffee shop to find a pay phone. I went back to that counter, but the pretty young girl wasn’t there anymore, instead replaced by a gruff, bald, short, middle-aged Greek man who gave me attitude when I kindly asked for change for a dollar so I could use the pay phone. He made me buy something so I purchased a fucking donut which I tossed in the trash and proceeded to stick a quarter in the phone and call my father.

Dad was at that point a cabby, night-crawling through the city in search of fares. He was just 2 years shy of divorcing my mother, a painful dissolve in itself. But I’ve never held a grudge and he and I have always been close. I got him just as he was en route back to his apartment for the night and told him about my predicament. I asked if he could take me home.

Within 10 minutes he was at that coffee shop.

I collapsed into his cab, never more grateful to be near him. I felt safe, like a soldier flying home from the front-lines. I told him what I did. Where I was. And I told him why I did it.

He thought I was crazy. But he understood. He wanted to know about the film and I suddenly perked up as I raved about the climax of Devil and the mad thrills of finally seeing Vampire Circus. I gave him a version of that Reg Hartt lecture on the history of Hammer and how CIRCUS fit into that puzzle, produced as it was in the waning days of the once great studio.

It was a cozy denouement to a very long, strange trip.

When I got home, my mum wasn’t very interested in Hammer horror. Rather, she saw her tom-catting son looking like grim death. I said I was fine, drew a bath (perhaps the greatest bath of my life) warmed up and went to bed.

I replayed the night’s journey in my mind and, despite the agony in my infected chest, I smiled.

What an adventure.

And yet, the price I paid for doing these things alone, outside of the “walking pneumonia” that I was diagnosed at the ER with the next day, was that I really had no one else to share my story with.

25 years later, I’m sharing it with you.

Thanks for reading.

Now, today, you wouldn’t catch me ever embarking on such a venture. Partially because I have no time, partially because I’m older and I don’t spring back from illness as quickly, partially because I drive now but primarily, because I don’t have to.

You wanna watch Vampire Circus now? Order the Blu-ray. Stream that (blood) sucker off your iPhone if you want. It’s easy to find any film or entertainment you want at any given time no matter where you are, ever.

The days of bus rides through the center of public transit Hell to sit in some strange dude’s living room and freeze to death while he pumps a print through a projector onto a pull down screen, are done.

And maybe that’s kind of sad, no?

On BYZANTIUM

Neil Jordan’s underrated 2012 horror film is one of the greatest vampire films ever made

When one mutters about who belongs in the fabled “Masters of Horror” club, the usual suspects are spoken. You know. Hitchcock, Romero, Hooper, Carpenter, Craven, Gordon. All those guys. And yes, they belong in the lexicon of legend. That’s inarguable. But it’s unfortunately rare to see Irish director Neil Jordan‘s name show up on lists like this and I’m really not sure why. Jordan is one of the great directors, full stop. But his work in the genre has exemplified the Gothic ideal and, most importantly, he’s one of the few horror directors who bring a genuine feeling of the fairy tale to his bloody landscapes. He trades in movies about lonely outsiders lost in treacherous but beautiful landscapes and his movies are always propelled by a simmering eroticism that bubbles under the surface of every frame. Look at his 1984 breakthrough movie, the Angela Carter-adapted allegorical werewolf masterpiece The Company of Wolves. With its probings into a young girl’s burgeoning sexual awakening pushed into a Little Red Riding Hood tale of flesh-eating, horny lycanthropes and girls who follow them to ruin, the movie still has no peer. There’s nothing like it. Similarly, there’s few films like Jordan’s The Butcher Boy either, or the troubled but still visually interesting High Spirits or the transgender noir The Crying Game. And certainly, his 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice‘s Interview with the Vampire is not only the best cinematic representation of Rice to date, it’s one of the greatest vampire movies ever made.

But as good as Interview is, Jordan’s bloodsucking best boasts also apply to a more recent effort that sort of slipped through the cracks and is rarely raved about when people wax fondly on the undead. That film is 2012’s Byzantium, a lush expansion of Moira Buffini‘s play A Vampire Story that — like Interview — uses vampirism to unfold a tale of loneliness and the eternal search for people to connect to people as well as nurturing but ultimately toxic nature of family. But here, in this gauzy, sensual phantasmagoria, as in Company, it’s the feminine that feeds the narrative and Byzantium‘s bloody, beating heart speaks of the agony of women and what they must endure to navigate a world that’s been hard-wired by men for centuries to keep them in their “place.” The movie is indeed a masterpiece and it needs more love. So let’s give it some today…

Byzantium stars the great Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) as Eleanor, a kindly, quiet and isolated teen living on the skids outside of London who has a sanguinary secret that she’s sworn to keep. While her mother Clara (The Girl with All the Gifts‘ Gemma Arterton, in what is a thus far career-best performance) strips at a seedy local club, Eleanor hand-writes her life story, tearing the pages out of her diary and throwing them to the wind from her slum tenement balcony. When a frail old man collects the scribblings, he confronts the girl, revealing that he’s ready to die… and wants to go by Eleanor’s hand. Literally. Because Eleanor is indeed an ancient vampire and she kills by a growing thumbnail that swells like a phallus when her bloodlust is aroused. But Eleanor is not a monster. Rather, she’s tempered her gift to serve as a sort of Angel of Death to the aged and withered, consensually euthanizing her victims after revealing her true nature.

Truth is something Eleanor craves. She’s carried the weight of her condition for centuries, a dark gift bestowed upon her by her mother and one she’s unable to share. She wants to fit in. She wants a life, even though she knows that’s impossible. She wants roots and companionship and she’s weary of living a lie. Clara, however, is the opposite. The elder vampire is — on the surface — a banshee who kills ruthlessly and keeps her daughter on the run, from mortal authorities and from some sort of secret cabal of men whose aim is to hunt her and presumably destroy her. She prowls the night posing as a peeler and a prostitute, using her eternally perfect body to drain men of their fluids — red and otherwise — and their money so she and Eleanor can continue to move freely through the world. But when Clara meets a sweet, sad John at a carnival who is in mourning after the passing of his elderly mother, she treats him with kindness, empathy. It’s her weakness. As a mother who will stop at nothing to protect her child, she is moved by this man’s condition. Even better, when she learns that he has inherited his late mother’s crumbling seaside hotel/boarding house hotel — the Byzantium of the title — she uses sex and companionship to make the man let her and Eleanor stay with him. Soon, Clara’s set the hotel up as a bordello, where she rescues and liberates street girls and lets them conduct their business in the comfort of the dusty, neon-pulsing palace.

And while Eleanor follows her mother yet again, she has hit a wall and begins writing her life story again, this time with intent to share it with the world. That sad, serpentine story of Clara’s miserable life and Eleanor’s baptism into vampirism is related via alarmingly beautiful and evocative flashback sequences that mirrors the women’s contemporary situation and fleshes out and justifies Clara’s feral, calculated nature. Meanwhile, a sickly young man (played by the always sickly looking Caleb Landry-Jones) has fallen in love with Eleanor and the feeling is slowly, surely becoming mutual.

Byzantium is a marvel. A deep, dark tragedy about forgotten, damaged people who have to scrape and scavenge to survive. And God forbid if said people on the fringe are female, where their bodies are exploited and used for fleeting pleasure and casual abuse and their dreams and hopes obliterated. Such is Clara’s plight, a gentle girl sold into prostitution who endures untold abuse but who finds a purpose and reason to soldier on after the birth of her child and later, is forced to steal her liberation from a sect of male vampires who don’t take kindly to a lowly woman among their privileged midst. But Clara uses her power for one purpose: to protect her child. Always. Forever and ever. And that’s why the gorgeously acted, photographed (by Sean Bobbitt), scored (by Javier Navarrete) and produced Byzantium is really about. The supernatural bond between mother and daughter at what berserk lengths a parent will go to to protect their child. Of course, in life and in Byzantium, there comes a time when the child becomes the parent and when that child begins to pull away to start their own story, the parent simply cannot abide. They’ve structured their lives around a dynamic that was built on protection but inevitably dissolves into control and fear of losing that control. And Jordan profoundly places Clara and Eleanor’s plight high above any simplistic horror movie trappings.

Which is not to say Byzantium doesn’t deliver the frissons. Blood sprays freely, heads are crudely ripped off, wrists are opened, necks torn asunder and — in the film’s most striking sequences — blood flows from a sacred shrine waterfall, bathing newly-born vampires. And despite the film’s focus on feminism, Jordan never shies away from ensuring Arterton’s effortless sexuality is deified. She’s a stunning woman and here, stalking the night in impossible heels and leather pants, or bust-pumping corsets or Victorian robes, she’s an iconic erotic presence. This is a thinking person’s Hammer Horror film, ultimately.

If you’re a vampire cinema junkie and you haven’t seen Byzantium, fix that problem immediately. But you don’t have to be a fang-fetishist to fall in love with Jordan’s evocative masterpiece. This is a movie that demands to be just as immortal as its startling heroines.

Originally published at ComingSoon.net